Lynda Gratton of London Business School has been one of the leading academic voices on what work should look like after the pandemic.
This week she published Redesigning Work: How to Transform Your Organization & Make Hybrid Work for Everyone, which she was prompted to write following the response to her 2021 article “How to Do Hybrid Right” in Harvard Business Review. (The book comes out in the US in early May.)
Gratton has identified this moment as one of great potential for changing the hours and locations where we work—but also for rethinking jobs to anticipate automation, to make them more fair and just, and to embrace less traditional career paths. She cites the late psychologist Kurt Lewin, whose model of institutional change describes moments like the pandemic, when organizations become “unfrozen” and deep change is possible before they freeze again.
“Do we go back to our old ways of working or do we use this as an opportunity to completely redesign work and make it more purposeful, productive, and fulfilling for all?” Gratton writes. (p. 13.)
Redesigning Work is meant to be a handbook for pursuing such change. In it, Gratton describes a four-step design process for organizations to tackle implementing hybrid work and shifting their practices to better equip them for the future.
But unlike many of the other articles and books on this topic, Gratton is skeptical of proposing a single path to follow. “There is no one-size-fits-all solution, no silver bullet, no list of best practices to copy,” she writes. (p. 61) Gratton believes organizations need to tailor what work looks like based on their unique purposes and values and the capabilities and motivations of their employees. She proposes that they lean into their own “signature” ways of working.
Redesigning Work is strikingly human-centered—encouraging exploration of the specific differences between job requirements and individual employees’ preferences about the time and place for work. But it also requires patience—supplying as many questions as answers. In that vein, the sections with the heading “Action” that appear throughout the book are, in fact, lists of questions rather than checklists of best practices.
Gratton begins with a clear summary of what changed about work through the pandemic:
- Workers’ digital skills accelerated dramatically out of necessity.
- Bureaucracy declined because of the ruthless prioritization required in the shift to remote work.
- Flexibility became a reality, and leaders realized employees could still get their jobs done.
- People struggled to separate work and life.
- Remote working highlighted the importance of human connection, even if only virtual, especially for young staff.
Her four-part design process, which the bulk of the book is dedicated to explaining:
- Understand what matters. Organizations need to identify what drives productivity in specific roles—with energy, focus, coordination, and cooperation the key elements that most jobs are built around. (Jobs that require cooperation, for example, benefit when people can come together to share ideas.) Organizations also need to understand how information flows and connections form across teams, and what employees want and need. The idea is to tailor work arrangements using that information as a basis.
- Reimagine the future. Gratton proposes imagining the office as a place of cooperation and the home as a source of energy. Asynchronous time—when people are working solo, at their own pace—is an opportunity for focus, and synchronous time is a driver of coordination. “Your aim is to maximize the upsides, minimize the downsides, and manage the trade-offs,” she writes. (p. 67) Fujitsu, for example, created smaller offices close to residential neighborhoods so workers could benefit from the quiet, a good internet connection, and a printer while minimizing their commutes. One Arup executive recommends increasing communal space and encouraging teams to meet outside meeting rooms to transmit the buzz of their cooperative work to others.
- Model and test ideas. Gratton’s focus here is on testing whether changes to work support where demographics and technology are taking us. She thinks work needs to accommodate what she calls a “multistage life,” with freer-flowing paths between full-time and part-time work, breaks, and education throughout our lives. (Gratton is an expert on the implications of humans living longer, a topic she touches on here as well.) Anticipating further automation, workers need to be directed toward “escalator jobs” that equip them to move up the career ladder, and often happen to develop human skills such as empathy and judgment. And organizations need to assess whether their approaches are fair and just, including in their outcomes, processes to get there, and the way team leaders communicate.
- Act and create. A big part of redesigning work is equipping and supporting managers for it. “It’s they who manage workflows, think through the team schedules of place and block out time for focused work,” Gratton writes. “It is they who consider whether the schedules meet team members’ needs, whether the tasks their colleagues are performing are pushing them into new skills or simply repeating already developed skills. It is they who are making calls about issues of fairness across the wider group and treating people with respect and dignity. And it is they who are coaching others to upskill in their current role, or counseling them to reskill to move to their next potential role.” (p. 179.) A common attribute of good managers is that they initiate frequent one-on-one discussions with team members. Telstra split manager jobs into “leaders of work” and “leaders of people” to separate responsibility for business outcomes and for the supply of the talent needed to achieve them.
To be sure:
- For readers rolling out hybrid work imminently, the book might be arriving too late in the process and not sufficiently directive.
- While Redesigning Work discusses gender, it doesn’t significantly address considerations of racial justice and inclusion in crafting workplaces for the future.
- The bespoke approach to redesigning work she preaches has the potential benefit of boosting Gratton’s consulting business. If it’s not one-size-fits-all, it’s more likely to require companies to pay for advisory services to figure an organizational problem out.
- With exceptions, Gratton generally focuses on massive corporations such as BT, TCS, Ericsson, Fujitsu, Telstra, and Sage. (Though it’s refreshing to hear about workplaces other than Wall Street banks and Silicon Valley companies.)
- Redesigning Work suggests that organizations model and test their approaches but doesn’t offer much specific guidance for using an experimental approach to assessing hybrid work against performance and inclusion goals.
Memorable anecdotes and facts:
- A complex job involves around 30 separate tasks, or different things one does in the course of it. (eg Gratton cites teaching lectures and writing academic articles as two of the tasks she’s responsible for.)
- Researchers found that university students were more likely to have a longer-lasting relationship if their dorms were closer to each other.
- Researchers found that the performance of individual workers drops when they leave a super-elite firm like Goldman Sachs to go to another company because they lose the expertise and connections their network of colleagues provided and they need to create new networks.
- Face-to-face interactions between workers fell by 70% after they shifted to open-plan offices, according to one study.
- Groups of colleagues who interact intermittently on a project are the most innovative and productive as compared to groups who are connected throughout. TCS uses daily “stand-up” meetings to provide such coordination without creating unnecessary interruptions.
- Sage, a UK financial tech company, agreed on four guiding principles for redesigning work, including that it needed to maintain or increase “customer-centric performance.” The other principles are fairness and trust, human connection, and “courageous experimentation.” (p. 211) “The leadership narrative was clear: this was not simply about flex, and it was not ‘a race to the bottom’—this was a tool to increase performance and improve employee experience,” Gratton writes. “And, importantly, this was something leaders were choosing to do rather than being told to do.” (p. 213)
The bottom line is that Redesigning Work is a substantive handbook for changing how we work in the context of hybrid arrangements, automation, and demographic shifts. It’s not a quick guide to implementing hybrid work. And it proposes that each organization needs to figure out its own approach, downplaying the utility of lists of best practices. Instead it offers a four-step design process that’s likely useful for many organizations.
Watch a conversation with Gratton, Ashok Krish of TCS, and Charter’s Kevin Delaney from last year. Read our interview with her from 2021 and her recent thoughts on the challenges of the return to office.
The handbook for this new era of business doesn’t exist. We’re all drafting our own as we go along—and now we’d like to start doing so together. You can sign up here to receive briefings like this by email.